We’re almost there: 31 games gone, 7 to go as this regular season gradually comes to a close. It’s basically a 9-team affair to reach the postseason. Of these, Liaoning and Guangdong are already in, Qingdao should be ok and Beijing are just a handful of yards away from touchdown. Shanxi and Guangsha need to make sure they keep their fast pace, but they’re in a pretty satisfying place to be. Xinjiang, Jilin and Guangdong are, conversely, in a hot seat.
Just for part 1, today, I will add key players for every of these 9 teams who are still contending for something (be it the title or a postseason berth). It’s not strictly going to be the best player, but the player who really could influence his team’s destinies.
1 – Guangdong, 28-3 (+1)
The Southern Tigers have earned their first place: be the master by beating the master. Their regular season series ends in a tie, 1-1, and Guangdong are destroying everyone on the eve of a 20-game winning tear.
Key player: Will Bynum (22,3 ppg, 6,6 apg)
Yi and Zhu have already been there, no matter where this season actually takes Guangdong. Wang is going to be there when it matters, too. Bynum, however, could be the one to transform their great season into a title, and the high-caliber matchup vs Liaoning is a clear indicator (46 pts, 7/13 from deep): Bynum was superb in a team that faced a Chinese cast capable of holding its own against them. It hasn’t happened in a long time: even when Guangdong lost twice to Beijing it was mostly about Marbury and Morris. There’s a strong chance that this is not the last time these two sides square off.
2 – Liaoning, 28-3 (-1)
A 7-2 outing in the last 9 games highlights that Liaoning aren’t invincible. On the flip side they’re still a title favorite, if only by looking at how narrow these 2 losses have been (just as it was the case for their first defeat to Qingdao). They’re a massive team with a deep roster made up by at least 7 starter-quality players and an MVP. How about that?
Key player: Han Dejun (14,8 ppg, 7,3 rpg)
Numbers only tell you so much. What Han really does is giving Liaoning a different dimension. No one beside from him is a post player in Liaoning. Li isn’t, Thompson isn’t, He isn’t (although being a 6’9″ SF with a deft touch in a league where swingmen possess below average height would hint at it as the next direction to take his game to, especially if he intends on being more than a CBA player). Han is capable of taking on every local and most imports with his back to the basket while also being a good passer when double teamed. If he is fed the ball consistently series can get turned around. Especially since the aforementioned Tigers would be forced to keep Daniels on the floor in crunch time, thus benching Bynum.
3 – Qingdao, 24-7 (+2)
8-game winning streaks aren’t an usual sight in Qingdao, who have historically been a bad team despite having had T-Mac sporting their jersey. Having three imports has of course made a valuable difference, but recently even local players seem revved up.
Key player: Hamed Haddadi (21,2 ppg, 14,5 rpg)
Haddadi is another player that moves your team to a whole different level. The second-best passer behind Dentmon, the Iranian is a post player, passer and defender of the highest order. He will be key: if he stays active and healthy Qingdao might surprise a lot of people.
4 – Beijing, 23-8 (0)
The title holders have been so-so, but it’s alright as long as the post-season sees them fight back to their usual level. 2 titles in 3 years have morphed them from courageous outsiders to elite candidates for the trophy.
Key player: Sun Yue (9,7 ppg, 3,8 apg)
An unusually subpar season for the 2014 All-Star Game MVP who is not even sure to take part in the ASG now, the former Laker is still the key guy, and here’s why: Marbury will execute in the playoffs, but he’ll be 38 by the end of the playoffs and might not always be the 4th quarter import. If Morris stays on the court most pick ‘n’ rolls that saw the two Americans run riot on everybody will have Sun as a ballhandler. Will he be ready?
5 – Shanxi, 22-9 (+1)
Another three-import team to chase a playoff run, Shanxi are steadily improving after that great win vs Liaoning. They are a team that could overcome the odds, and they seem to have a chip on their shoulders.
Key player: Zaid Abbas (12,5 ppg, 10,5 rpg)
Quite unsurprisingly, given how Asian imports have remained unscathed by the fourth quarter rules on import usage, Asian players have become crucial. None more so than the meaningful Asian foreigner himself, big Zaid. Given how far better players than before fill these spots in 2015, it’s unlikely that he’ll explode for 30-20 games like he sometimes did back in 2013, but it was just as unlikely then. Zaid is the CBA’s manifesto for overcoming the odds alongside Starbury and won’t have any limitation on playing time. Given how poor Shanxi’s local big men are on the boards, his activity will define their destiny.
6 – Guangsha, 22-9 (-3)
In the midst of Franklin’s replacement Guangsha have somewhat lost a step, although it’s hard to blame Murphy or Holman. Nonetheless, this team has lost several matches against playoff teams: are they just a regular season team?
Key player: Kevin Murphy (13 ppg, 6,7 rpg)
Today’s bad performance instantly sparked a very Chinese-style debate, but Murphy is only in his third game and clearly needs time to get it together. If he does, however, he’ll find a steady team with an established leader in Eli Holman and some reliable players in Lin Chih-Chieh and Wang Zheng (he’d have been my key player, but it’s time to get over the fact that Coach Li Chunjiang will not give him starter minutes anytime soon for no understandable reason, as far as I’m concerned). He has the drive to be a great player and time to find his feet.
7 – Xinjiang, 21-10 (0)
It’s scary to think that a mess of a place like Xinjiang’s front office has to deal with such a subpar seasons. I’m surprised all the players are still alive and well, as a matter of fact. Jokes aside, the Mongolians have to get the playoff berth or it will be chaos in Urumqi. The good news is that Zhou Qi is back and the roster is impressive.
Key player: Liu Wei (11,2 ppg, 3,5 rpg)
Given how steady Zhou Qi has been before being sidelined, it’d be easy to take Xire as the key player. But he’s always been and probably will always be inconsistent. Liu Wei, on the flip side, is a winner and still has game at 35. His season hasn’t been spectacular, but if he finds enough energy to play at his level in this final stage of the regular season and, maybe, the playoffs, suddenly Coach Cui doesn’t need to worry about keeping Blatche on the floor in the 4th.
8 – Jilin, 20-11 (0)
Dominique Jones’ team has overcome the odds making it to this position so deep in the season, but it’s a tie-breaker with Dongguan and they can’t miss a beat.
Key player: Zhong Cheng (7,3 ppg, 6 rpg)
Not many things are as sure as Jilin’s trio of foreigners, as they’ve all been consistently delivering what they promised. Denzel Bowles is the inside menace, Madanly the floor spacer and Jones the do-it-all champion of a guard. With Cui Jinming making a case as an adept floor stretcher himself what Jilin really needs is to spare Jones from having to corral too many rebounds, and since Bowles has never been a glasseater Zhong Cheng might be what helps this team keep it going in the stretch run, as the only good rebounder among locals who receive decent playing time (not too many, as you can imagine). Forget about loads of points, the foreigners will get them for good: this team needs Chinese players who will fill up any given need.
9 – Dongguan, 20-11 (0)
Last year’s surprise team has hit a rough patch. They’re not done yet, but they have to be perfect. And even if they are, probably the best they can get is an 8th seed. Not too comforting, but now isn’t the time to complain. Brown, Diogu and the young guys have to do their job and stop being so volatile, then the playoffs are a different story altogether.
Key players: Zhang Kai (9,4 ppg, 6,4 rpg)
Once a very good player by CBA standards, the only true veteran Dongguan has (at least CBA-wise) is a model of inconsistency at 32. Yet, he sometimes explodes for double-doubles that are reminiscent of his old self. Although not game in and game out, he still has it. If he manages to pull off a streak of old-Zhang Kai games, Dongguan suddenly have what has been long lacking: a center.
10 – Foshan, 15-16 (0)
Foshan is a great three-point shooting team, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to be a high-quality squad. Alas, but they have something to cheer for in Zeng Lingxu’s All-Star start. Better than nothing at all.
See you on Tuesday for part 2, take care!